Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Short Tale of Silver the Rooster

Back in March, as you may remember, Long John Silver the unplanned and unloved Americana rooster  was a feathers width from the chopping block.

He continued to be unreasonable with the hens to the point that they all, one by one, mutinied. Every day, one more Americana hen would move out of their pen and into the Cuckoo Marans pen to roost for the night.
Finally Silver was alone with his over sized libido and after a couple of weeks of watching him jumping out of the bushes to grab hens and cornering unwilling hens in the open pens, it was deemed by all the inhabitants of the Homestead that he was to be sentenced to solitary confinement and if we could not find a home for him this summer, he would meet his maker and/or our soup pot.

Silver himself was informed of this decision, his door was firmly latched and the search began for a new home. But it seems there are many more roosters in the world than there are homes and so Silver was to be dispatched as soon as someone had the time.
And so he did dwell for many weeks, alone in one of the chicken pens, eating kitchen scraps and waiting. That is, until the day he escaped while his water was being filled...

After a lifetime of living with chickens I will be the first to tell you they are not really the smartest animals on the farm, usually.

There have been exceptions.

There was for instance a hen named "Tweetie Bird" who came into my mothers life as an orphan and was raised by her, after I had moved away from home.

Used to being the apple of my mothers eye, I actually became jealous of this bird. Whenever we would meet for coffee, she would go on and on about how smart Tweetie Bird was.
She would interrupt phone calls with me to talk about what Tweetie Bird was doing right then that was so cute or smart.

Of course I always took her stories with a large grain of salt, and then one day I called my Mom and got the Answering Machine. Instead of the usual greeting, the recording was 3 minutes of Tweetie Bird singing the happy chicken song (if you have chickens, you know what the happy chicken song is) and then a beep.

The message I left was a chastisement of how my mom had taken her relationship with this chicken too far.
She called a couple of hours later and had no idea what I was talking about.

What we finally figured out was that Tweetie Bird had come onto the mud porch where the answering machine lived and had stepped onto the correct buttons in such a way as to leave an outgoing message.
I never doubted my moms stories about Tweetie Bird again.

Another was the hen named "Qweet." She was, again, an orphan rescued by our, then, 6 year old daughter June.
Qweet was not an electronic genius like Tweetie Bird, but she was an amazingly companionable hen.

She would sit on Junes shoulder and share Popsicles. One bite for June, one bite for Qweet and so on. Bird Flue was certainly not on our radar back then. Qweet endured all of Junes games, costumes, falconry garb, matching calico dresses (sewn by my mom) and just about any whim that caught Junes fancy. All with a calmness and happy go lucky attitude I would only expect from an elderly Black Lab.

And now we may have to add Silver to this short list of poultry personalities.

I wasn't at the Homestead when he escaped so my first clue that something had shifted was when I fed the horses and down in the stall with Rio was Silver clucking and preening and gobbling up hay seeds.

"What is the meaning of this weird event? The Rooster has moved in with the horses?" I pondered this for the rest of the day. There was no way I was going to be able to catch him in the daylight so I would just watch him at dusk to see where he was roosting and catch him then.

I got busy that day and forgot to watch him. Days and then weeks went by, and Silver remained at the top of the hill, where he never ventured more than 20 feet from the horse pasture. I have to admit that even though he had been nothing less than a heartless marauder in his past, he was now an odd guy who really just wanted to be left alone with his new comrade Rio.

I have to admit it became impossible to think about chopping Silvers head off when I would watch them out grazing together.
If Silver had found a new peaceful life for himself, who was I to interfere?

Even though the other hens would forage their way up to the top of the hill every day, Silver would pointedly ignore them, choosing to stay inside the boundaries of the horse pasture instead. Roosting at night on the corner post of the up-hill fence.

If you have a good sense of the heroic story, you have probably guessed that this story does not end happily.

Silver was, well, silver. This is a color that is highly visible at night. And populating the night are many things that love to eat chicken.

Six weeks after his escape, on Thanksgiving Day (Oh, the irony!), we found no rooster in the horse pasture, but instead, a small puddle of silver feathers.

I had known that day was coming, chickens are very low on the food chain, but it was a little sad anyway to see him gone.

But, as Buck pointed out "At least he died the way he wanted to, with the wind blowin' in his hair."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Old Barn

This summer has been a lot of work for Buck and I. We have been so busy going back and forth this summer that not a lot has been done on the Homestead besides maintenance and winter readiness.

Because of the work we have done this summer, our other house where my dad, son and new daughter-in-law live, has an improved septic system and we have saved the garage from collapsing on a crumbling foundation. It is now a fully functioning art studio where no mice are allowed! This makes my new daughter in law a very happy painter.

We have also started work on the old barn on the property which has some sagging issues and a hole in the side where a hay door used to be. The door had been missing long before we bought it.

This was not taken with a fish-eye lens, it really does sag that much.
What shall we do with this frail old icon of our communities agricultural past? It would break our hearts to see it fall, but we can't justify too much money being spent on it for it's present use- storing outdoor furniture, 3 barn cats and a small amount of hay for my dads ancient (she turned 36 this year) Arab mare. Since we only have .5 acres of pasture, the barn will never really be used for much livestock or hay in the future.
It could be used for more- a workshop, art studio or maybe a farm store... It just needs to be re-purposed in some way. But for now we have to settle for just keeping it from falling down.

I drive by at least 15 barns on my way to the Homestead (a 15 mile drive) and every one but 2 of them are falling down. They are far too costly to repair when their original use is extinct. Sentimentality is a luxury few farms can afford these days. I know at least one farmer who found it was much cheaper and faster to replace the old wood barn with a steel building. The cost to fix the roof on the old barn would have cost the same as his whole new building. In my opinion, the very best hope for the survival of these old barns is to convert them to modern activities, not restore them as relics.
The underside of the barn is supported by peeled fir logs and 12 by 12's. There is something definitely wrong with the 12 by 12 in this picture. That's next on the list.
The main reason we are plugging the hay door hole is because it is like an amazing wind tunnel in the winter. It is also letting rain in and the interior is showing signs of rot. We decided we would put windows in the hay door hole since it would be very dark in the barn if we just covered over the hole with boards.

It won't really look original, but the fact is that barns like this, built to house plow horses and the hay they ate in the winter, have no relevance in our modern lives. Keeping a barn interior dark was an important feature- the sun destroys the quality of hay, but more natural light would be a better feature for it's future.

We have had these turn of the century french doors out of an old factory for several years. We had planned on using them to enclose a porch, but changed our minds.

I did a lot of image searches for old barn windows and found that most old barn windows were just salvaged windows put in in no particular way. Perfect, we can do that!

We have trimmed the doors to look more like windows, given them a fresh coat of paint (it's much easier to do on the ground!) and when the rain lets up a little we will mount them in the frame we have built out of local, full dimensional lumber to match the rest of the barn.
Next summer the barn will get a full coat of paint, red and white stripes and all.
In the next couple weeks we will be digging a french drain along the uphill side of the barn to divert the rain water that constantly threatens the old foundation.

Then we will have our carpenter help us jack up the sagging East wall and let it sit over the winter to flex back into position before we put in new posts and piers to hopefully hold this sweet barn up for another 100 years.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


This fall we have been very busy. In addition to all the normal October things, our son is getting married on Saturday. It is a home grown affair, with the two of them doing most of the planning. So, yeah, it is busy here.

After a slow start at the beginning of the summer, our tomatos came in really nicely. We had a very warm and beautiful first half of October here, and have been getting our fill of tomatos When the first rain came last week we had to get them in before they split.

This is apple season too. One thing about this year is that the fruit is huge. The tomato is one of Phoebe's hybrids. She has been proving the seeds for a few years, and they are really lovely and yummy. And usually big.

The apples are a King and what we call a Mystery. (So named because we took it to the apple fair and the old apple guys could not identify it. Probably a unique hybrid or an heirloom type that is not well known.) The Kings, left, usually get big, but I have never had Mysterys this large.

Hank helped me get the hay in a while ago, so that is all taken care of.

The boys helped me split, haul and stack the wood that had been drying over the summer. 3 trailer loads and 2 pickups full will get us a long way through the winter. There is still more to haul but that will have to wait until after the wedding. It is tarped and waiting.

We like to burn a lot of bark this time of year. It is not that cold out, and often we just need to take the chill off in the morning or evening. The bark is kind of a pain, in that it does not stack well and is really splintery, but it is perfect for days like today.

And of course, apples mean cider. We did not do our usual party this year; too busy to think about that. And our septic is still a little tender, so we wanted to go easy on it. So the boys and I pressed 10 gallons, 5 each of the King and Mystery. We thawed out 6 gallons of the Grav we did in August and mixed them together. They make a lovely blend. A few were gifted out and the rest went back in the freezer to get us through the winter.

Finally, I have been really enjoying riding my Honda 110. If I have a reason to go for a little ride, to the bank or post office, I always try to find a little more to do. One thing I love in the late summer/early fall is to ride by the dahlia farm down the road. It is always a beautiful sight.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Going Down the Toilet, Hooray!


As you may know, we have a house closer to town which my father (the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat) lives now, along with our son (and his soon to be wife) who have now moved up from California.

Although this project is not taking place at the Homestead, I feel like it is something we should talk about since many homesteaders will at some point be dealing with this very same problem.

If you are buying an old house in the country, you are more than likely buying an old septic tank and an abused drain field. It has made Buck and I realize how precariously we teeter at the Homestead between the civility of indoor plumbing (even though our toilet is in an out building, we do have a real toilet) and being forced to squat in the woods. The tank at the homestead is a 30 year old steel tank- for you that don't know, that will be a tank full of rust and soon that rust will be holes. Put one more big project on the list...

But I digress. Here at my dad's house we have a slightly less dire situation. This house is a very dear little farm house that sits just outside the city limits on a triangular acre of land. It was built in 1943 by the father of three girls and he put a lot of care into it's details. Like the little details he put in, clearly with love, for his wife's kitchen.

He was a do-it-yourselfer back when it was perfectly normal and even expected that one would know how to build a house for your family, no matter what your day job was.

One of the things that he built himself was the septic tank. He dug a hole in the ground and put a smaller space saver in the middle, (to be honest, I have no idea what that was because I did manage to help on this project without sticking my head into the tank) and then poured cement around that, creating a 1000 gal tank. That was considered a very big tank for those days and he was really thinking ahead (thank heavens).

Our first summer at this house, the nice gentleman who built this house came out to ask if he could pick some plums. He was 92 at the time. I had a great time helping him pick plums and hearing all the great stories of this house and his family. I also took full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about things only he knew.

 He walked me around the property and showed me where faucets were supposed to be (2 were busted off and leaking in the ground). He told me where the barn needed help and the fabulous story behind the 4 plum trees on the property (a future post, I think).

And most pertinent to this story: He told me where the septic tank lid was and where the drain field was.
For those of you in the know about drain fields, you can understand how proud he was that he had put in  a GIANT drain field. It went clear across our property.  This fact alone is why we have a 70 year old septic system that is still functioning.

But it does have it's problems. One of them raised it's ugly head this summer.
There is no sinking feeling worse than seeing "water" oozing out of the ground any where near your septic tank lid.

After much searching and  stressing, our problem turned out to be a 45 degree joint, 5 feet down, which went from the tank to the drain field. It had been rigged with regular straight pipe encased in cement. Which meant it was a rough and goo gathering cement joint. This joint was plugged.

But as all old house projects go (and believe me, I KNOW this sort of phenomena) it snow-balled.

I could see that our years are numbered with this septic system when the pipe began to break off every time we thought we could patch it. We did finally get to a solid spot and put in a PVC pipe.
We added a "clean out" and a new baffle to the tank. We also added a "neck" to the tank and a new lid which will make it so we don't need to dig up my flower bed every 5 years to have the tank pumped. Three weeks later the problem is dealt with.

In the meantime Hank and Jake built an awesome outdoor shower out of cedar fence boards and a propane instant-hot water heater off of Amazon ($120) fed by a garden hose.

We found and told each other where all the great bathrooms around town were. You know how hardships on families create bonds? We became very close during this trial.

By the way, I will be posting about all the things I have learned, from those who know, about how a septic system works, septic maintenance and the REAL importance of having your septic tank pumped. If you don't, your drain field system WILL fail. Maybe not while you are still there, but it will. I wish I had not listened to the old guys about this and I will be doing a better job from now on.

We are doing fine now, but it is very clear that a savings account will need to be started soon. I am guessing by the looks of the goo on the inside of the pipes we have 3 to 5 years.

It will cost around  $15,000 because modern building codes will never allow our existing system to be so close to the house or so small, so we will have to build a completely new septic system.


Now I need to re-landscape. It will be, hands down, the nicest part of this project.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Taste Test

When I arrived at the homestead yesterday, there was an ominous warning:
 Rubber Chickens Beware!
Now that September is here, it is time to address two of the big fall chores, hay and wood. We got the Hay House finished two years ago, and are just finishing up the hay we bought last year. So it is time to fill it up again.

First, we have to decide what to buy. In the Willamette Valley here in NW Oregon, we have a couple different ways to go. There is local hay that was cut this summer, and Eastern Oregon hay. According to Phoebe, my hay expert, the Eastern Oregon feed is the best. They have long, warm, dry, consistent summers and are able to cut and bale it at the peak of its nutritious, delicious cycle.

The local stuff is subject to the same conditions that are causing our tomatoes to still be green. We had a long cool spring, which delayed the start of summer.

Eastern goes for about $300 a ton, local for $130. So, if we can find 5 or 6 tons of good local hay, the savings really adds up.

We are shopping a little late in the season this year, so there were not a lot of options on Craigslist. But there were two that sounded promising, a Timothy and what the seller called Pasture Mix. Since I can't really tell good hay from bad, I bought a bale of each and took them up to the experts.
We fed them a leaf of each and watched to see which they preferred. The verdict was mixed. They ate both, and went back and forth between them rather than eating one before the other. That was a good sign. We are going to feed them both for a few days to see if they develop a stronger opinion with a little more exposure.

This may mean that we can make them happy with the local hay again this winter. That makes me happy because, in addition to costing less, it supports my local farmers and requires much less energy to get it from the field to the barn. (With the Eastern hay, I can get it from a feed store a few miles from here, so it is just as close as the local, but it was trucked 100+ miles to get here.)

Once the horses give us a verdict, we will start filling the barn. It looks like it will be dry here for another week or two, so I have a nice window in which to move it. Lets see if I actually get it done before the rain.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Apple Squeezing

The Gravensteins were ripe, falling to the ground. It was time to begin the picking.
It is not an easy task, picking a tree like this. Ladders and poles with picking baskets get you to most of them. Jake, Hank and Phoebe helped out.
Several hours of picking over a couple of days got us a fair number of apples.
Gravs don't keep, so you eat them right now, cook them or squeeze them. We did some cooking and eating, but the squeezing is the big job.
Our press is a homemade, picked up from a 2nd hand store 10 years ago or so. You can see it in action in the video below.

It has a shredder powered by a small electric motor. It is a fierce device. Apples go in whole, stems and all, and come out in bits. The PVC cylinders catch the chunks. When full they get slid down under the press, which is a screw jack. Tighten until it gushes, then let it finish.

It gets poured from the catch pan, through a sieve and a funnel, into clean water jugs. I don't use cleaned out milk jugs; I worry to much about the unpasturized juice and the possibility of something going wrong. So only clean, new jugs for me.
We squeezed over 12 gallons, and still had a bushel of apples to share with friends. The juice goes into the freezer, to be thawed out in October when the rest of the trees are ripe and we can do some blending.
The squeezed bits go back into the soil. The chickens are temporarily interested, but there are so many apples on the ground that they have their fill all fall.

I have a mixed relationship with squeezing apples. It is a lot of work to get the apples down, get enough to press, then store and clean up. This is such a busy time of year, and it is always HOT when it is time to pick.

But I am always glad that I did it. This year was made even better because both of the kids were home to help. Jake has been away for so long he has never squeezed apples. June has, but she has been traveling and living elsewhere, so we don't get a lot of time with both of them here. Having them, and our new friend Hank, there to help was the best part of the process.
Since neither Hank nor Jake had squeezed before, they had not tasted the fresh, raw juice. Gotta have a little tasting before the clean up. It was wonderful.

The ground is still littered with apples, slowly rotting. There are some left in the tree, including the ever tantalizing big ones out of reach at the top. The other trees' apples are still growing, the branches are straining and sometimes breaking. The press is cleaned up and put in the shed, until October, when the weather will be cooler, friends will gather, and more cider will be squeezed.